Confronting Congressional Hunger Games

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following post appeared first in Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” blog.


Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, John Boehner, Joe Biden
In this June 19, 2013, photo, Senate Minority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, House Speaker, Republican John Boehner of Ohio participate in a ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The congressional hunger games began when Senate Democrats voted to cut $4.1 billion from food stamps, or SNAP. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said it was a matter of slicing “waste, fraud and abuse” from the program.

Except that’s not what they were doing.

They were cutting about $90 a month in benefits for 500,000 households — more than a week’s worth of assistance for a typical family, at a time when an individual’s average benefit is about $4.45 per day. (It’s worth noting too that just one cent on every dollar of SNAP spending is lost to fraud.)

House Republicans then tried to up the ante and slash $20 billion from the program — to reduce both the deficit and welfare dependence, they claimed.

Except that’s not what they were doing.

Food stamp spending is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to amount to just 1.7 percent of federal spending over the next ten years — and people with access to food stamps when they are young have better health outcomes and less dependence on welfare assistance over the long-term. In fact, what the Republicans were attempting to do was toss 2 million people off of SNAP and prevent 210,000 low-income children from receiving free school meals. The bill failed because many Republicans wanted even deeper cuts.

Finally, on Thursday, House Republicans took these hunger games to a new level of violence: they passed a farm bill stripped of any food stamp provision.

There were appropriate expressions of outrage that this occurred at a moment when nearly 50 million Americans aren’t sure, at times, where their next meal is coming from. But beyond the outrage is a key question: Why is it so easy for both parties to play games with the lives of the one in seven Americans — including nearly one in three children — who are in need of food assistance? And what can be done to change this dynamic?

A friend of mine suggested that a representative group of food stamp recipients storm the House floor.

“So about half of them would be children, and about 10 percent elderly, and a lot in wheelchairs, with oxygen tanks, crutches, etc.,” she said. “It would make the fools in the House look even more trivial and foolish than they already look.”

My friend wasn’t being literal, but she makes an important point — we shouldn’t permit our legislators to continue making these decisions in a vacuum, isolated from the very people whose lives they are toying with.

In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and co-principal investigator at Children’s HealthWatch, said, “There’s just not enough people who are poor who have an opportunity to speak out…to really engage in our democracy. I think that they’re actively shut out.”

At the very least, during the umpteen farm bill hearings, Democrats — and there are still many on the right side of this fight — should noisily work to ensure that we hear from real people about their real experiences. Make those who would malign the poor tell them to their faces that they are lazy for working a low-wage job or two, trying to take care of their kids and needing SNAP’s $1.50 per person, per meal to help them make ends meet. Senators and congressmen can also try to explain to people how taking their food away — while also opposing a raise in the minimum wage—is somehow going to reduce their poverty and hunger.

And for those who can’t make it to Washington to confront their legislators, we should be pressing for town meetings on hunger in every congressional district, according to Joel Berg, exectuve director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH). There is hunger everywhere: the proportion of rural households that participate in SNAP is about equal to urban households — 14.6 percent and 14.8 percent, respectively, in 2010 — and the fastest growing poor population is in the suburbs. It’s time to reduce the shame and stigma, step forward with our neighbors and share our experiences.

The coalition fighting for sound food policy needs to change too.

“There are all of these strands of movements that have been talking past each other,” said Berg. “There’s the small farm people, nutrition people, sustainable agriculture people and the anti-hunger folks. The only way we can win this is if we’re all in this together.”

Berg and NYCCAH hope to build the kind of diverse coalition in New York City that can serve as a national model. The Food Secure NYC 2018 initiative aims to end hunger in the city by the end of the next mayor’s first term and inject food and hunger issues into the upcoming mayoral campaign. Currently more than 1.4 million New Yorkers — including one in four children — live in households that are struggling with hunger.

Berg said there is plenty of “low-hanging fruit,” such as ensuring that every school provides universal, in-classroom breakfast. New York City ranks last among twenty-six large urban school districts in breakfast participation, with only 35 percent of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches also eating free breakfasts.

A food jobs proposal focuses on the $30 billion that New York City residents spend on food annually, much of which is grown, processed and manufactured outside of the city and region. The plan calls for expanding city and rooftop gardens; urban farms; food co-ops; community-supported agriculture projects; farmers’ markets; community kitchens and projects that hire unemployed youth to grow, market, sell and deliver nutritious foods. It would also bolster year-round neighborhood plants that process, freeze and can foods.

The initiative would create “food and nutrition zones” modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone. Berg said the idea is “to saturate targeted neighborhoods with every possible food access, anti-hunger, nutrition and obesity-reduction strategy.”

“We’ll be able to measure results and create a national model for what works,” he said.

People of faith, nutritionists and low-income people are already involved in this effort, and Berg hopes to bring in farmers, unions and other NYC-based antipoverty groups over the next few months.

It’s good to see these advocates trying to change the politics of hunger. If their strategy works, maybe it will indeed end up serving as a national model.

But in the meantime, Congress continues to pummel low-income people with increasing ferocity. I would like to know what you think can be done to confront and change this kind of cruelty and shortsightedness.

Frankly, I’m somewhat at a loss.


Greg Kaufmann is a freelance writer and Nation contributor covering poverty in America, primarily through his blog, This Week in Poverty. His work has also been featured on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, CBSNews.com, NPR.org, WashingtonPost.com, Common Dreams and Alternet. He serves as an adviser for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
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  • Anonymous

    Our only power comes in voting out republicans. That’s it. I now refer to the party as the Corporation Party, because it is their party.

  • catonine

    There is a good and simple answer, petition the 2%, who for the most part do not pay their fair share of taxes to set up permanent “feed the hungry accounts”. Who knows, it might even change our negative perception of them. Sorry, that’s pie in the sky, it could never happen.

  • JonThomas

    The Democrats may be the lesser of two evils on this subject, but let’s not go pretending that they are a ‘party of the people.’

  • Anonymous

    Massive welfare for corporate farmers & the shaft for hungry children & seniors. There is much larger fraud & abuse in the farm revenue loss protection insurance; in our local area an insurance broker was colluding with several (6) I believe in defrauding the taxpayer subsidized insurance program. We are talking about millions; I guarantee that every state has similar fraud going on – republicans don’t care to look at that.

    Democrats certainly make mistakes and it results in unnecessary spending. That said, the mistakes that Republicans make, not regulating naked CDSs, poor regulation of derivatives, deregulating the financial & mortgage industries and then refusing to enforce what regulations were left have been far more damaging to the nation’s well being than the smaller scale and better intentioned than the Democrats mistakes.

    It is do sad the see the mean-spirited, short-sighted focus of the Republican party – welfare for giant defence contractors, firms that are off shoring jobs versus cut to nuitriyion programs.

    I say, drop all agribusiness subsidies of all kinds. If the agricultural industru cannot make a real living they will move on to something else just like the rest of us.

  • Guest

    Congressmen do this because they KNOW that we can’t vote them out of office. Our votes are “counted” in secret by computers, which can be rigged in secret. As long as the number of votes matches the number of voters, there is no way to tell whether fraud has been committed on a touch-screen computer. With a ballot-scanning computer, the only way to tell if fraud has been committed is to hand-count those ballots, in public, before those ballots leave the view of the public, and to re-count them, in public, until the public decides they have been counted fairly and accurately. UNLESS votes are counted by the public, and the public can PROVE that the votes were what they were, our elections are completely faith-based, and we have NO WAY of knowing whether the votes were counted accurately nor not.

  • Guest

    THIS accounts for the WI re-count election failing to rid WI of Scott Walker; for Walker having been “elected” in the first place; for GMO-labelling failing to pass in CA; for Obama & Hillary “winning” the 2008 primary in NH; for W. “winning” both Presidential elections; for W. beating Ann Hutchison for Gov. of TX; and numerous other election anomalies of the past 15 or so years. This also accounts for Congress steadfastly refusing to say the tiniest negative thing about election integrity, and the mass media’s thundering silence on the subject.

  • unhappy

    Yet we can spend millions pf dollars building things in Afganistan that are not wanted or needed. The people of U S need to wake up and realize that our elected officials are not doing things that are in our best interest.

  • Anonymous

    The reason why federal legislators are so complacent with the privations of so many is because their penury is the means to Congress’ heavily butterd bread.

  • jamminsue

    Greg, I cannot see a current solution either. A short-term answer is get people to participate in primaries, where political candiadates are selected. If enough people go that can moderate the extremists from being selected. That is the only way I can see anything happening.

  • Gaylenekb

    Mr. Moyers: Why not suggest that the congressional cafeteria serve Washington DC school lunch menus for a month AND that every congressperson eat at least 1 meal a week at the congressional cafeteria during that time. The congressional cafeteria would save a bunch of money; and the entire congress could experience what being on a limited food budget is like, without, you know, wasting their valuable time. {Ok, this last line is largely sarcastic}

  • Anonymous

    just as Ricky implied I am shocked that someone can get paid $4962 in 4 weeks on the internet. did you read this page w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • Rheta

    We do need to get campaign finance reform in order to get rid of Congress people who care more about preserving and enhancing their “Congressperson” status than doing the work they were hired to do for the people they were hired to represent. At the very least, tho, we can insist that the most pressing needs are taken care of. (And, no. Charities are not the answer. They are not ubiquitous, too many are left out in many areas, and in high population areas where charities exist in numbers, some of the “undeserving” will take advantage of several charities for the the same needs.) Many in Congress refuse to cut the “socialistic welfare” for the owners of oil & other multinational companies with $billions in yearly profits, but don’t mind taking food out of the mouths of poor children and people who need a “leg up” while they get on their feet (which could be any of us, as in, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”). The “giveaways” for the poor who are indigent only by choice (& there’s always at least one example used as a counter argument) are miniscule compared to the corruption and “socialism” for the extremely wealthy. The amount wasted on military “toys” that get scrapped continue to dwarf the $ spent on a few “undeserving” welfare recipients. It takes only a little research to compare the numbers, for anyone truly interested.

  • Anonymous

    One meal a week? No. They should be required to eat their breakfast and lunch in the congressional cafeteria, which will only serve school breakfasts and lunches. Whatever the elementary kids are getting, that is what the Congress gets, too.

  • Anonymous

    This is the same idea I came up with the other day, too. The problem, of course, is to find enough people who will participate. I already vote in the primaries, but “one lone voice in the wilderness,” and all that, you know. Still, if we ran campaigns to really drive home the importance of voting in the primaries, we might get somewhere.

  • Anonymous

    I like dreaming, too. “What if we just talked to them like they were humans and explained that what they are doing is hurting people? What if we took them to see the individuals in our neighborhoods who are being harmed? What if…. Well, surely if they *knew* what was going on, they’d want to help!”

    I sure wish I could still believe those dreams as easily as I could when I was in my 20s.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you and with JonThomas. Obama has clearly been purchased by the natural gas guys who want to frack their way across our country. The rest of our government is obviously owned by corporations, too. The Democrats are the lesser of the two evils, but it may be an illusion as well. Sometimes it seems that they are just saying what we want to hear and then pretending that they don’t have any power to change anything.

    But still, the Republicans are openly, and with great hostility, stomping all over the poor, the hungry, the sick, and everyone else they can think of to stomp on. We have too many videos of Democrats trying to stop the Republicans across the US and getting shouted down or ignored as the Republicans do whatever they want to.

  • Roberta Dees

    Or let each Congress person ski both breakfast and lunch, the way so many children have to do.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t forget that in 2009 we had a supermajority of democrats and all 3 branches…….they could have fully funded SNAP for 10 years and didn’t. That is because neo-liberals want to end War on Poverty and New Deal as much as republicans! We need to recapture the democratic party for labor and justice to turn this around.

  • Christine Grimm

    I want to speak as a mom and a member of my community. I live in an old farm house that is definitely not up to code or modern in fact it could probably be condemned if anyone really took a look at this house. This summer I invite little 7 or 8 year olds over regularly to play with my son and they are always hungry. I am far from well off probably verging on poverty and these children are much worse off than our family. The families in my town in most cases have both parents working and many depend on a stay at home mom to babysit for a cheap cash price because they can’t afford child care. These kids are hungry. Most are probably on food stamps. Food stamps does not provide enough to get a family through the month. This is just sad. The families out there are struggling to feed their kids even on food stamps..

  • Wilbur Clark

    I called my stepdaughter to say hi. She is at the grocery store. They paid the mortgage this week so they don’t
    have enough money to buy groceries. She
    is almost in tears. They bought an old
    farm house, cheapest thing they could find. Her boyfriend is a mechanic. She works in a bakery. She has an associate degree in social
    services but all the job postings require a bachelor’s degree. The job postings offer seventeen dollars an
    hour. My stepdaughter has enrolled to
    get her bachelor’s degree. I didn’t have
    the heart to tell her that thirty thousand in college debt requires a starting
    wage of sixty five thousand to break even.
    They want to have a baby. I think they are better off than most young
    people nowadays.

  • Carmen Molina-vergara

    That’s a very good idea Gaylenekb! ! Seriously !!

  • Carmen Molina-vergara

    AMEN !!!

  • Carmen Molina-vergara

    My support !!! To Harriet and Roberta.
    But what else are we going to do about ? Writing these commentas cannot be all what we can do. Right ?

  • Carmen Molina-vergara

    That’s the way we did in the country where I come from. Machines fail and can be manipulated, as you say. Votes should be count in front of people of the parties that have representatives in those votes.
    Well said Guest

  • Diane Osgood

    For a Republican party that prides itself on being pro-life, they seem to have little regard for what happens to those children AFTER they are are born. They seem to focus more on regulating women’s reproductive rights. Rather than being part of the solution that brings more people jobs to better themselves, they just degrade the poor and middle class and claim those people choose to receive government assistance. For every rich person or corporation that receive subsidies who do not need that money to survive, they are taking away money from the most vulnerable population that actually need this money. I consider this money corporate welfare.
    It’s time that both parties are prevented from receiving money from the rich and those who lobby Congress for things that only benefit the rich. It’s about time to close those loopholes and level the playing field.